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Background:

A few years ago, I've designed a low-cost scientific instrument and published all schematics, building instructions and necessary scripts in open source under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license (CC BY-SA). By releasing this in open source I wanted to make this type of technology more accessible to others. Since this was published, a few companies contacted me, improved my design (which is great!) and started to sell the improved version as one of their products (which is also fine by me, and allowed by the CC BY-SA license).

My questions:

  1. In their advertisements/press releases, some of these companies mentioned that they built their instrument based on an existing design, but don't make any reference to my original design/paper. Is this allowed by the CC BY-SA license? The Creative Commons website clearly states

You must give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made. You may do so in any reasonable manner, but not in any way that suggests the licensor endorses you or your use.

Would it be appropriate for me to contact these companies and ask them to add reference (links) to my original design?

  1. The CC BY-SA license indicates that it is fine to modify the design of the original material but that the new product must use the same license as the original. Does it mean that I can ask for all the schematics of their commercial product?

2 Answers 2

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Creative Commons licenses are copyright-based licenses, but copyright doesn't really apply in a hardware context. So, while there might be a copyright in the schematics, and all copies or modifications of the schematics would then have to feature attribution as per the CC-BY-SA license terms, the objects created from the schematics are not encumbered by the license. So it is likely that the companies would be able to sell the instruments without being required to provide attribution.

What Open Hardware licenses tend to do is to cover the licensing of schematics and firmware, not the design itself. However, copyright is not the only kind of IP. When patents (for novel inventions) or design patents (for ornamental design) have been granted, these can be licensed in a way that also exerts control over the objects created accordingly. Read the Licenses section in the Open-Source Hardware Wikipedia article for a brief discussion of hardware licensing issues.

If the instruments were a creative work that is afforded copyright protection, then the creative works – but not necessarily advertising for the works – would have to carry attribution per the CC license terms. The ShareAlike term only mandates that further modifications of the creative work are permitted, but not that intermediate works or source forms are provided. For example, assume a “photoshopped” image that is CC-BY-SA covered. The license will not require that the Photoshop project file is shared as well. Since the CC licenses are intended for general creative works, this aspect is quite different from software-oriented copyleft licenses like the GPL that do require a source form to be provided.

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This is a tricky situation... and I'm not sure whether this has been debated in any court yet.

Generally: If they base their work on your work, and the license for your work is under CC-BY-SA, then they do violate your license terms.

As you quote correctly the CC website, people or companies who use your work hence are obliged to reference you and link to your original in an appropriate manner (how that can work in a concrete situation depends really on the type of work and the way it is being represented. But it must be such that is available to their customers / recipients of the work and that the license is clear).

The share-alike part even demands that derivatives are subject to the same license terms. So that basically answers your 2nd question: yes, you can ask that the derived work is shared under the same terms. What you cannot ask for though, is any intermediate work. The CC licenses don't require people to share any sources, intermediate sketches, production plans etc. And here it is where it really get's hairy. IANAL and my personal take on the situation is: you can ask them to share the finished product with you under CC-BY-SA - something they might not like.

The practical difficulty might be to prove that they used your work as basis for the instrument they ship. That may or may not be easy. And depending on how this is answered you may be successful in asking them to at least acknowledge your work in a fitting manner and maybe convince them to honour the CC-BY-SA part in making the improvement details of the instrument's plans public, too. They might simply count on you not being willing to go to court over this and rip you off. Asking often does not hurt, but in legal conflict some ways of doing so might even eventually be to your detriment; so you might want to even seek legal council before approaching them.

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